The one artist you should know about this year
24-year-old indie music star on the rise Claire Boucher, AKA Grimes. Photo: John Londono
Chatting to 24-year-old indie music star on the rise Claire Boucher, better known by her recording moniker of Grimes, the most immediately noticeable thing is her wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. A discussion on extraterrestrials ends with her explaining to me the Drake Equation, a piece of mathematics used to estimate the number of alien civilisations in our galaxy. When discussing fashion she reveals she’s currently feeling inspired by early 20th century Russian avant-garde, the Ballets Russes and their costume designer Léon Bakst in particular.
It’s not surprising then that music critics are ransacking their dictionary of genres in an effort to best describe Grimes’ similarly eclectic sound. Is that a touch of K-pop? A dusting of industrial? Two parts new age? (For the record Boucher herself simply describes it as “experimental pop music”.) One thing critics are fairly agreed upon though is that her breakthrough album Visions is one of the year’s best. Upon its US release in February this year the indie music tastemakers at Pitchfork awarded it their coveted ‘Best New Music’ stamp and over in the UK The Guardian described it as “a bewitching lo-fi blend of R&B melodies and new age atmospherics, fashioning flimsy components into something sensual and sweetly psychedelic”.
While Visions is the songwriter/producer’s third album, it’s her first on well-respected independent label 4AD and its success has brought Grimes mainstream attention as well as her first Australian tour for the Meredith Music Festival plus her own sideshows (already all sold out). The record’s rapturous reception has come as somewhat of a surprise to Boucher. “I actually thought it would go over like my other albums which had minimal blog hype. I still haven’t been able to comprehend everything that has happened. The thought of people knowing about my album in Australia just seems crazy,” she says laughing.
But despite the attention and accolades currently coming her way Boucher was not always set on a musical path and had studied Russian literature and neuroscience at Montreal’s McGill University before being expelled for missing too many classes as her musical career gained momentum.
“It’s kind of been a thing that I started doing in the last three or four years,” she explains. “I’d been singing back-up for people, because a lot of my friends are musicians. I’d be around and people would be like, “We need girl vocals, can you sing this back up part?” so I started doing that. And I was obviously watching them record so I kind of figured out how to do it.”
It was Grimes’ entry into the music scene that also led to her feminist awakening. “I would have been like ‘I’m definitely not a feminist’ until a couple of years ago, just because I didn’t know what it was,” says Boucher. “Feminism is really seen as a curse word. There’s been a lot of propaganda painting feminism as this anti-male, man-hater thing. I think people just don’t actually know what it is; they’re not very educated about it. I see a lot of problems, especially culturally in the music industry.”
Just a few of the problems Boucher has come across in her time on the scene are people implying she’s not a ‘real’ producer, guys in music stores talking down to her, or the way women are not encouraged to enter all areas of the music business. While Boucher is very supportive of the Canadian punk/noise/DIY scene she came out of (most famously she collaborated with a Montreal sculptor on vulva rings for her merch desk – link NSFW – as she’d rather give money to a local artist than a giant t-shirt corporation) she’s also refreshingly honest about the sexism still entrenched in the music business.
“It’s such a male-dominated industry. I look at Pitchfork’s Best New Music and one in eight is a girl. Now I just want to be super encouraging of young women taking up music, especially production. At the beginning I used to be super down on my production, even considered working with other producers at first, but then I was like ‘No, I just need to figure this out for myself.’ There should be more encouragement for girls to get into the more scientific and technical things. It’s really discouraging, especially when you’re starting. Just because you don’t have experience in something doesn’t mean that you’re going to be worse at it than some guy.”
Grimes also fits into the rather irritating longstanding media tradition of pegging any slightly left-of-centre female artist as “quirky” in a way that male artists are never subject to. “I really hate that word, it f--king pisses me off! It’s sort of demeaning – it implies a cute, small, airheady thing. It’s a loaded word and a stupid word. I find it pretty offensive. If someone makes ‘quirky’ music, it’s probably not respectable music or it’s the antithesis of intellectual.”
Grimes is already hard at work on her next record sequestered in a cabin in the woods in British Columbia when I spoke to her (Visions was similarly made by holing herself up alone for three weeks.) And despite all the newfound attention her artistic ambitions remains steadfast. “It’s very important for me to be at the forefront of what is happening musically. I want to be constantly changing the musical landscape and doing things that people haven’t heard.”
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